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Culinary Arts

What Is Bordeaux? Learn About the Grapes, Wine, Region, Terroir, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

Jan 25, 2019 • 6 min read

Some areas make their best wine from single grapes grown in specific vineyards: regions like Barolo in Northern Italy, and Burgundy and the Northern Rhône Valley in France. And then there is the the largest, most popular and famous wine region in the world: the Southwestern province of France called Bordeaux, a UNESCO world heritage site. Its fortunate climate and history have led winemakers in Bordeaux to take different types of grapes and forge them into something famous the world over.

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What Is Bordeaux Wine?

Bordeaux wine is classified as a unique blend of at least two of the three grape varieties that are commonly grown in the Bordeaux region:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc

While the grapes are traditionally vinified together in Bordeaux and include cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot, the term can refer to this combination used around the world.

The proportion of grapes in each Bordeaux varies widely, depending on:

  • the winery
  • climate
  • harvest
  • and even the sommeliers

What Are the Characteristics of Bordeaux Wine?

Bordeaux wines are known for several characteristics. They are a well-rounded wine thanks to:

  • Full body
  • Medium or full acidity
  • Scents of black currant, plums, gravel, and lead

What Are the Differences Between Bordeauxs?

While they have commonalities, Bordeaux wines can vary, based on the following:

  • Color. The most common association for Bordeaux is its famous red color, but Bordeaux wines can be white or even rosé.
  • Price. Bottles can be bought as cheaply as $15, while those from the top-ranked chateaus are often auctioned off for thousands of dollars.
  • Age. Some should be enjoyed within a year, while others age well up to 100 years.

What Makes Bordeaux Different From Other Wines?

Bordeaux’s special flavors and unique qualities result from:

  • Climate. Bordeaux has an unpredictable climate, with the wind and rain from the Atlantic Ocean blowing in from the west. Two rivers—the Dordogne and the Garonne—also run through the region, affecting the soil and weather. All this means that some grapes in Bordeaux don’t ripen fully or are damaged each year.
  • Blending. As a result, local growers blend together different types of grapes, rather than rely on a single type to produce wine. Blending means winemakers can use the best grapes from a vintage to create consistent wines.
  • Soil. Two rivers—the Dordogne and the Garonne—also run through the region, affecting the soil and weather.

Is Bordeaux a Grape?

Since Bordeaux is a regional wine, there is no Bordeaux grape. The overwhelming majority of Bordeaux wine is red wine, but whites do exist. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the most important grapes used for the region’s dry white wine, as well as for the area’s sweet white wine.

Common Red Grapes in Bordeaux

  • Cabernet franc
  • Cabernet sauvignon (the most traditional)
  • Carménère
  • Malbec
  • Merlot (the most common)
  • Muscadelle
  • Petit verdot

Common White Grapes in Bordeaux

  • Sémillon
  • Sauvignon blanc
  • Ugni blanc
  • Colombard
  • Merlot blanc

The History of Bordeaux

Winemaking in Bordeaux dates to the ancient Romans. As early as the 1600s, specific regions and brands in the region began developing. And in 1855, Bordeaux received an official classification: the 1855 Bordeaux Classification of Medoc deemed the winemaking region the single most important in the world.

The title of “First Growth” originated during this period and is still awarded today to the best wines—“first” means not first in chronology, but best in class. This rich history contributes to the extraordinary quality and professionalism of Bordeaux wines.

A Map of the famous wine region of Bordeaux

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Geography of the Bordeaux Region

Some areas, like Bordeaux and the Southern Rhône, specialize in blended wines. In Bordeaux, the unpredictable weather of the Atlantic climate means that some grapes won’t ripen fully or will be damaged each year, so by blending, winemakers can use the grapes that were the best that vintage to create consistent wines.

Bordeaux is divided by the rivers into two main parts:

Left Bank

  • Located south of the Garonne and Gironde rivers.
  • Known for wines made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Right Bank

  • Located north of the Dordogne and Gironde Rivers
  • Dominant grape is Merlot.

Within the Left Bank itself are different winemaking regions and sub-regions. Here are some of the most important:

  • Barsac
  • Graves
  • Pessac-léognan
  • Médoc
  • Margaux
  • St. Julien
  • Pauillac

The Right Bank has its own regions:

  • Blaye
  • Côtes-de-Bourg
  • Fronsac
  • Pomerol
  • Saint Emilion

And there are additional winemaking regions between the two banks, most notably Entre-deux-mers (“Between Two Seas”).

The Difference Between Left Bank Bordeaux and Right Bank Bordeaux

Here’s a good way to tell if you’re drinking a wine from the Left Bank or the Right Bank (besides reading the label):

Left Bank Wine Bordeauxs:

  • Higher alcohol content
  • Powerful
  • Ages exceptionally well
  • Higher in tannins
  • Very acid

Right Bank Bordeauxs:

  • Lower alcohol content
  • Juicy
  • Should be consumed earlier than other Bordeaux wines
  • Usually less expensive

Are Bordeaux Wines Only Made in Bordeaux?

No! Bordeaux wines originated in the French province of that name, but just as hamburgers are found outside of Hamburg, Germany, Bordeaux blends are now produced all over the world. Where once the best Bordeaux wine was made in the region that called it home, no longer is that assumed to be the case.

The 4 Top Bordeaux Producers Outside France

  • United States. California’s Napa Valley features a wealth of Bordeaux vintners.
  • Chile. This top New World Bordeaux regions relies on merlot and cabernet blends.
  • Argentina. The fifth-largest wine producer in the world offers world-class Bordeauxs.
  • Australia. The country’s cooler regions produce sumptuous, affordable Bordeauxs.

Bordeaux Harvest and Viticulture

Wine is first and foremost an agricultural product whose birthplace is the vineyard. What happens in the field as the grapes are harvested make or break the quality of what becomes wine.

As of 2015, there are 60 different Bordeaux appellations in total. They encompass nearly 300,000 acres of land, producing about 500 million bottles of wine every single year. For all this sheer size, there is a considerable amount of overlap in how wine is made in Bordeaux.

  • Harvest season. The grapes are usually harvested around the middle of September. As the climate gets increasingly warmer, early September is becoming more common.
  • Harvesting method. The grapes are picked by hand, by people of all ages. For all the talk of mechanization, human dexterity remains the best way to perform complex operations on such delicate creatures as grapes.
  • Grape selection. Grape selection is done individually, on sorting tables, with the worst-looking and unhealthiest fruit removed and discarded in the process.
  • Grape separation. Most grapes then get put into a crusher/destemmer, a machine that separates the stems from the grapes and breaks the grapes open.
  • Environmental considerations. There is a trend in Bordeaux toward more environmentally-friendly wine-producing. Some estates have gone entirely organic, eschewing pesticides and fertilizers.

Famous Wineries That Produce Bordeaux

Bordeaux features some of the most famous wine estates in the world; notable vintners include:

  • Château Ausone
  • Château Blanc
  • Château Haut-Brion
  • Château Latour

Best Wine Pairings for Bordeaux

With their bold flavorings, Bordeaux wines are best-served with complimenting strong flavors in other food and drink.

They should be served:

At or just below room temperature

With strong meats, such as:

With cheeses, including:

  • Swiss
  • Cheddar
  • Havarti

Alongside vegetables:

  • Sauteed mushrooms
  • Onions, green or fried
  • Baked, mashed, and roasted potatoes